They're starting to look familiar
Better, yes, by a long shot. The Bruins last night showed a lot more of what they were last spring, on both the hockey intelligence and skill sides of their game, in an impressive 5-3 victory over the Senators at the Garden.
Now, have they shaken their early-season morass, their month-long, self-hypnosis-induced hibernation? We’ll know more about that Saturday night when they take their humble one-game winning streak and their weak-ankled 4-7-0 season start into Toronto’s ACC to face Phil Kessel and friends. A bad 5-10 minutes against the Leafs, a team they beat handily last month at home, assuredly will have them back answering the long list of the hey-what’s-a-matta-with-you? questions that have dogged them since the first puck was dropped this season.
All of which means general manager Peter Chiarelli must remain in dogged pursuit of someone to upgrade his team’s offense. One win, even against a Senators team that arrived here on a six-game win streak, guarantees nothing more than the two points it delivered in the Eastern Conference standings.
This is still a team that desperately needs to upgrade its power play (1 for 5 last night), and one that has to do a far better job of finishing its scoring chances. A lot of that points to the soft starts of top-six forwards David Krejci and Nathan Horton, who, by the way, were the only two Black-and-Gold forwards not to contribute a point to last night’s scoresheet. Krejci took two shots, one of which made it to the net, during his 18:22 of ice time. Horton was a touch better, landing two of his three shots, but also went 0-0-0 across 16:15.
Will these two ever get it going? Horton is 2-3-5 and a minus-3 in 11 games, while Krejci is an even starker 1-0-1 and minus-6 in eight games. If they don’t come around, and soon, then getting back into the playoff hunt in the next 2-3 weeks likely will hinge on whether Chiarelli can chisel Mr. Right out of what currently is a very sparse trade market.
Keep in mind here, folks, the season only began Oct. 6. Right now, only the Bruins and the perpetually pathetic Blue Jackets are in desperation mode. Not everyone else in the Original 30 can be categorized as fat and happy, but none of the other 28 GMs is waking up each morning with the same dread fear of being rubbed out of this season’s playoffs before the butter is rubbed on the Thanksgiving (US version) turkey.
More clubs will become desperate, that’s a guarantee, but it likely won’t be for another 45-60 days before there’s enough critical mass among the have-nots for Chiarelli to work a deal of substance. By that point, if the Bruins are still wallowing in sub-.500 territory, it will be too late. The Blue Jackets have one huge asset in power forward Rick Nash, age 27 and a two-time 40-goal scorer, but he’s not going anywhere after eight seasons in red, white, and mostly blue. He is the franchise in Columbus, even more so than Joe Thornton was here when he was deported after seven-plus seasons.
The Blue Jackets could only entertain the idea of handing over Nash if someone offered GM Scott Howson a bonafide franchise goaltender, which is what they believed they had in Steve Mason. But like a lot of good young ’tenders, Mason has followed a sensational rookie year with two extraordinarily ordinary seasons, which in large part explains why the CBJs DNQ’d these last two seasons. Truth is, even if they swapped Nash for that franchise goalie, their offense would be so compromised without Nash that they might not make it to the playoffs even if their new goalie won the Vezina Trophy.
So nights like last night offer some hope for the much more talented Bruins. When they struck for two quick goals in the third, with Johnny Boychuk and Danny Paille connecting only 37 seconds apart, the energy in the building was palpable. It was reminiscent of last spring, when a team that hadn’t won the Cup in 39 years played with strength and passion and guile and purpose.
Boychuk connected on a steaming slapper that Chris Kelly set up with a short dish above the right circle. Simple play. Paille broke away from near his own blue line when an alert Shawn Thornton sprung him with a short-yardage chip pass. Again, a simple play, one that started with strong work in their own end. Unlike so many good chances the past month, Paille potted it after racing straight down Broadway and nailing a forehander.
“It’s a 50-50 chance there,’’ said Paille, asked what he was thinking as he raced down with the potential closer, “so I’m just glad I finished it.’’
Finish has been the key missing ingredient, at least the most obvious one. When a team doesn’t convert on the power play, everyone talks about lost opportunity. When the Avalanche walked in here last month and walked out with a 1-0 win, the talk again was Boston’s inability to find a way to beat the goalie. But although finish has been short, their work ethic and second effort has been shorter. Last night, over the course of 60 minutes, much of that improved, and lo and behold, so did the scoring. Funny how all that goes hand in Cup.
“We played our north-south game,’’ said Kelly. “We chipped pucks in and got after them. We got back on defense. We were supporting and playing for one another. That’s more our brand of hockey. It was our style, not some fluky win. It was a lot more like we were in May and June.’’
Much better. But only a start, a full month into the 2011-12 calendar. Just as they cut it oh-so-close in the playoffs, forced to go to Game 7 in three series, they have started their repeat season by making narrow margins even narrower. We’ll see Saturday if they widened them ever so slightly.